Nostalgia is a tricky opiate. It distorts and sanitizes, encouraging longing for a home that never quite existed.
The assurance is obvious. Nostalgia retrospectively imbues our lives with an illusion of inevitability and control, as if we are the characters in a preordained narrative with expected beats. Which is to say that there is a sense in nostalgia of God.
How many nostalgic films are about lessons learned during a time that changed everything for the better? The danger of such indulgence depends on scale. When we’re misremembering Christmas or the homecoming dance in the ninth grade, stakes are low. When we’re longing for a ‘simpler time’ that includes segregation and routine assassinations of progressive national figures, the stakes are much higher.
Filmmaker Richard Linklater, already a poet laureate of recollection, manages something quietly astounding in “Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood.” He honors both the profound value and insidiousness of nostalgia without indulging in glib, op-ed reductions on either side of the scale. Contemporarily, it’s his celebration of nostalgia that is most distinctive and poignant.
It’s become easy, and fashionable, to harp on everything that is wrong with American society in terms of our heritage as well as our current political practices. While this grappling is more than necessary, it often misses the profound power of the quotidian details of life, of the little things, even as little as a burger or a board game, that casually unite us. Linklater celebrates these details with Proustian obsessiveness, and such notions of unity are not to be taken for granted in a media landscape populated by bad-faith actors who seek to divide us at all costs.
We are primed to expect a children’s tall-tale. “Apollo 10 ½” has been animated in a similar rotoscoping style as Linklater’s “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly,” in that real footage was filmed and then drawn over. The prior films were hallucinatory while the animation of “Apollo 10 ½” boasts an ultra-realistic sense of texture that’s paradoxically surreal.
It’s Houston in the summer of 1969, and we are introduced to Stanley (voiced by Milo Coy), a precocious 10-year-old boy with an army of siblings and a square dad (Bill Wise) who works for NASA. Stanley is approached for a top-secret mission by NASA operatives. They’ve built a lunar module too small and need a child to pilot it to the moon as a test run for what will prove to be the iconic Apollo 11 mission. Stanley accepts and begins his training. Then Linklater literally stops his film cold, freeze-framing on the boy throwing up from the speed of one of the test vehicles.
For nearly the next hour of a film that only runs 97 minutes, Linklater eschews the fantasy mission to focus on Stanley’s childhood world, which reportedly bears more than a passing resemblance to his own. Rather than using plot as a flimsy pretense to mine his true occupations, Linklater exhilaratingly cuts to the chase, offering a free-associative vision of the past that’s narrated by the adult Stanley (Jack Black).
The details are specific, ecstatic, and essentially the entire point of the movie. We learn of the games the children play, whether it’s the civilized board games or their unhinged exploits shooting fireworks at one another. We are offered a catalogue of seemingly every TV show that was on during that time, from “Get Smart” to “Hawaii Five-O,” and learn of the contrasting albums each sibling preferred at the time. We learn of how the atomic fears of the ‘50s bled into the future, particularly in terms of the mutant horror movies that show up on TV late at night.
We see Stanley’s mind blown by “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Planet of the Apes” and by how those visions correspond with daydreams inspired by the seemingly fantastical NASA facility that’s nearly in his backyard. There are barbecues. There’s a trip to an amusement park that’s punctuated with a remembrance of falling asleep in the car and being carried by dad to bed. Linklater offers a portrait of a community that’s enraptured with the upcoming Apollo 11 mission and the sense it offers of a grand heroic quest come to life.
The film celebrates a bygone Americana, reveling in a boy’s gloriously incomplete vision. Ignorance is said to be bliss, and childhood is, ideally, a kind of benevolent ignorance that’s gradually shed. But remember these adventures are related to us by the adult Stanley, who has since recognized the racial inequality that coursed through this (and every other) era. The “space race” was highly debated, as people understandably wondered why that gargantuan amount of money couldn’t be spent on addressing poverty, especially in neglected Black neighborhoods. Linklater honors this problem while acknowledging the blinkered rapture and privilege of living in a suburban dream world.
A casual lawlessness unites “Apollo 10 ½” with Linklater’s other youth epics, “Dazed and Confused” and “Everybody Wants Some!!!,” both equally not as sentimental as they appear. These children are unbound, often off on their own. Besides shooting fireworks at one another, they play other potentially harmful games, such as biking along with a truck that sprays for mosquitos, basking in what is basically toxic waste, the same waste later sprayed in their homes. On a polluted beach, the kids have to scrub oil from their feet while dodging discarded pop-tops from beer cans that can slice you open. And, of course, there’s corporeal punishment in the schools and homes alike, which the children weather with a resigned matter-of-factness. Few of these actions can be rationally justified, but I admit to watching “Apollo 10 ½” and feeling that modern, relentlessly helicoptered children have lost something important: soul-nourishing recklessness, as well as an early sense of life’s chaos.
Linklater eventually returns to Stanley’s adventure as a secret astronaut, weaving it into the family’s viewing of the Apollo 11 landing on TV. Ironically, Stanley doesn’t even see the landing. He’s asleep dreaming dreams, fashioning the manna of a future misleading memory in which he does watch it.
His other fantasy of Apollo 10 ½ is also a vision of being at the right place at the right time, of being at the center of things, of mattering. But as he’s on his couch, dozing away a lovely day near his mother while dad ruminates on his own contribution to the landing, the truth is equally momentous. Linklater understands that truth and fantasy, a.k.a. nostalgia, are inseparable and equal, conjoined in an emotional double helix. This is a wonderful movie.